Interpol: authoritarian regimes’ new global secret police

Now led by an alleged torturer, Interpol becomes world’s authoritarian secret police
7 min read
26 Nov, 2021
Aside from his brutal history of using torture, Interpol's new president Major General Ahmed Naser Al-Raisi will ensure Interpol becomes a tool for authoritarian rulers and legitimise the abuse of 'red notices', writes Anthony Harwood.
Designated President of Interpol Ahmed Naser Al-Raisi attends the 89th INTERPOL General Assembly meeting in Istanbul, Turkey on 25 November 2021. [Getty]

It was with a sense of profound dismay that the British academic Matthew Hedges travelled to France last month.

Almost three years after being freed from a life of hell in a United Arab Emirates jail here he was in Lyon, the headquarters of the international policing body, Interpol.

The reason? To speak out against the expected election of his torturer-in-chief, Major General Ahmed Naser Al-Raisi, as its new president.

"I actually cannot believe that almost three years after I was finally released, I have to travel to the headquarters of Interpol to ask them not to make one of the men responsible for my torture their next president," said Hedges.

How he must have felt on Thursday when news came through that his pleas had been ignored and Al-Raisi had won the election. The fox had taken over the chicken coop.

"[A]side from individual cases of the brutal treatment of innocent people which make this man totally unfit to lead any police force, let alone one representing the international community, there is a much more sinister threat emerging from Al-Raisi's election"

Hedges, who in 2018 had been researching a doctorate in the UAE when he was thrown in jail in Abu Dhabi on trumped-up spying charges, began legal proceedings against Al-Raisi in May.

In a lawsuit seeking £350,000 in damages he claimed he was fed a cocktail of drugs during his incarceration, all of which was spent in solitary confinement. In his first month he slept on the floor and had no access to a shower, often spending whole days standing in ankle cuffs.

Despite suffering from panic attacks he was never given any medical treatment and eventually made a false confession that he was a British spy. It was only following an international outcry led by British foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt that he was "pardoned" and set free.

Mr Hedges says that Al-Raisi "was ultimately responsible" for his "torture and detention" and is suing him for assault, false imprisonment and psychiatric injury.

Voices

He is joined in his legal action by another Briton, Ali Issa Ahmad, 28, a football fan jailed in the UAE after wearing a Qatar shirt to an AFC Asian Cup match in 2019.

He was beaten up and thrown in jail for nearly three weeks, where he claims he was electrocuted, burned and stabbed. At the time the UAE authorities put out a statement accusing him of inflicting the injuries on himself and wasting police time.

Like Hedges, the former Wolverhampton chocolate factory worker also holds al-Raisi, inspector general at the UAE’s interior ministry, accountable for his treatment.

There is also the case of the human rights activist Ahmed Mansoor arrested in 2017 for social media posts which were said to have insulated the prestige of the UAE. He too has filed a legal complaint against Al-Raisi based on allegations of torture.

The list goes on. In total, Al-Raisi has criminal complaints against him in five countries, including France, where Interpol has its headquarters and Turkey, where this week's election took place.

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However, aside from individual cases of the brutal treatment of innocent people which make this man totally unfit to lead any police force, let alone one representing the international community, there is a much more sinister threat emerging from Al-Raisi's election.

This is the way that Interpol is being used by autocratic states to track down opponents and critics living abroad through the use of 'red notices'.

These allow a suspect to be tracked across 190 member states at the request of a single government – no proof of guilt needed.

Anyone subject to a red notice can be summarily detained at foreign airports, have their passport cancelled and assets frozen by any tinpot dictator.

It led to a British parliamentary inquiry last year into how Interpol was open to abuse by 'rogue' member states including Russia, China and the UAE.

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One of the witnesses who testified to the Foreign Affairs Committee was Bill Browder, the British financier and fierce critic of Vladimir Putin. He found himself caught up in by the red notice system, flagged up at airports at least eight times as tried to get to the truth about the murder of Sergei Magnitsky in a Moscow jail in 2009.

Turkey filed 60,000 notices against alleged conspirators behind the 2016 coup attempt against President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and earlier this month it emerged that Interpol was lifting restrictions on Syria for the first time in nearly ten years prompting fears that President Assad could use the red notice system to go after his enemies abroad.

So how can someone linked to such appalling human rights abuses – and a person who would likely not stop at using and abusing the red notice system to go after political enemies abroad – get to be elected president of Interpol?

Could it have something to do with a $US 54m donation in 2017 from the Interpol Foundation for A Safer World, which is entirely funded by the UAE? And another $US 11m in 2019?

So thought Sir David Calvert-Smith, the former Director of Public Prosecutions in England and Wales, who warned that Al-Raisi’s appointment might be seen as a 'reward' for donations to the agency.

In a report last April he wrote, "Not only would an Emirati president of Interpol serve to validate and endorse the United Arab Emirates' record on human rights and criminal justice but, in addition, Maj Gen Ahmed Naser Al-Raisi is unsuitable for the role.

"He sits at the very top of the Emirati criminal justice system. He has overseen an increased crackdown on dissent, continued torture and abuses in the criminal justice system."

Talking about the prospect of Al-Raisi's elevation being payback for the donation, Calvert-Smith added, "The contribution at least creates the impression that the president of the organisation may be seen as a reward for a financial contribution."

In Matthew Hedges' own words Al-Raisi's election, "100 percent makes Interpol a tool for dictators and legitimises abuse of red notices."

"What are Saudi Arabia, Iran, Russia and China going to think now when they want to hunt down adversaries overseas? It's a sad day for international policing," he added.

"Shame on Britain and other Western governments for their silence and complicity in giving authoritarian rulers confidence in weaponising important institutions such, as Interpol, for their own sinister ends"

Following Al-Raisi's election, Anwar Gargash, UAE's former minister of state for foreign affairs, dismissed the accusations against Al-Raisi as an "organised and intense smear and defamation campaign" which the election had now "crushed on the rock of truth."

The truth for Matthew Hedges has been continued dependency on drugs he was fed while in prison. He still suffers frequent panic attacks, as well as PTSD, anxiety and depression. His crime was because he dared to work on a PhD examining the effects of the Arab Spring on the Gulf States.

The truth is Giulio Regini, an Italian PhD student murdered for researching trade unions in Egypt, or Jamal Khashoggi the Washington Post columnist killed in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.

“Free debate and knowledge creation are the antithesis of any authoritarian society,” wrote Hedges, following his release.

Shame on Britain and other Western governments for their silence and complicity in giving authoritarian rulers confidence in weaponising important institutions such, as Interpol, for their own sinister ends.

Anthony Harwood is a former foreign editor of the Daily Mail

Follow him on Twitter: @anthonyjharwood  

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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.